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The VICE Guide to the Books of 2012

Apparently '50 Shades of Grey' wasn't the only book to come out this year.

af Gavin Haynes
20 december 2012, 2:35pm

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Books are these things that society used to fill in the time between papyrus and the invention of the Kindle. However, now that people can not only read, but also watch films, play computer games and listen to music during train rides with their weird, little electronic books, our brief retro-futuristic dalliance with returning to the printed word is already drawing to a close. These days, it is widely known that 90 percent of books only persist so that Radio 4 can have enough question content for panel shows featuring David Mitchell.

Yet there remains that awkward 10 percent. There are still those occasional sticky situations where you end up trapped with half a dozen people yammering on about DFW vs BEE, and you can't find a way to unilaterally change the subject back to cock rings and your fascinating job in the media without revealing that you hate books and their stupid, endless words.

It's a quintessentially modern dilemma: how to seem knowledgeable about books without actually reading them. After all, books take fucking ages to get through – often longer than 20 Gawker articles – and most books open up fundamental questions about the universe and our place within it, which, in practical terms, is just a recipe for fucking disaster.

Well, now help is at hand. It's much easier to just read this handy rough guide to the year's biggest novels. Do what you've always done: get the cheat codes, boost yourself to level 49 with three health packs at all times and blast the zombies of a rich intellectual inner life with the laser-bazooka of cheap factoids.

JK Rowling - The Casual Vacancy

What's It About?
The woman who wrote all of those books about Robbie Coltrane returns to the fray with a book about some people in a town. Not as exciting a subject as Robbie Coltrane, on first inspection; or, as it turned out, on third, fourth, fifth and sixth inspections.

What's It Like?
A local man in a small West Country town, called Barry Fairbrother-No-This-Doesn't-Sound-Like-a-Made-up-Name, dies of an aneurysm in a car park. Then everyone schemes over who will get his seat on the town council. Simple enough, right? Guy dies. Boom. By-election. Boom. New guy elected. Boom. Life goes on. Boom. Everyone gets a little older. Boom. Maybe a new Sainsbury's opens. Boom. There are further regional elections. And so on.

Nope. Not as easy as that. Not even a bloody bit of it. This just goes on and on, for pages and pages, all of these different people who live in this town – fucking loads of them, with their individual lives, their problems, where they've been, how they feel, how much underage sex they're having, what time they get up, what they've been having for dinner, whether they enjoy tennis. It's like reading a cross-sectional tranche of Nectar Card data. Except that Nectar Card does teen suicide more tastefully. 

How Has It Done?
Incredibly well, but badly. Despite becoming the second-fastest selling book of the past eight years, it is presently sitting on a measly three stars on Amazon and, after initial glowingness, the critics have sought to row back. In short, it is the Be Here Now of books. Expect to see crates of it by the door in your local second-hand shop after Christmas, and for Rowling to release the literary equivalent of "Sunday Morning Call", sack Bonehead and generally start acting like cocaine's suddenly a bad thing.

Martin Amis - Lionel Asbo: State Of England

What's It About?
A fat cockney. Satire. Called ASBO. Satire. Wins the lottery. 90s satire. And spends it. Plot.

What's It Like?
Much like when George Orwell satirised the pork production industry, or when Swift satirised the midget community, Martin Amis takes his laser eye to satirising how people who he probably expects live in Britain nowadays might live if they were really living there and existed or, at least, if they resembled in any way how people in general behave, or how Britain in particular now is. Put it this way – it makes the lyrics to "Parklife" look like a Ken Loach film.

How Has It Done?
Predictably, Martin – or, "the embarrassing uncle of British letters", as The Observer called him has had his guts kicked out by a bunch of lesser talents (i.e. critics) who've still got their unpublished coming-of-age novel set in pre-partition India sat in the cupboard where they store the dot-matrix printer they never got round to throwing out. This is what happens when you are Martin Amis – you're a massive target for writerly frustration. People wait for you to release a book, then they turn on you. Sometimes they have to coax you into it.

For instance, they gave quite good reviews to his last one, The Pregnant Widow, just to encourage him to release another one. "Go on, Martin," they murmured. "You're safe now. Don't worry. We're not going to hurt you. Go on. Just do us another book. There's a good chap." Well, Martin did another book, which they have then jumped on from space with their lead-lined diesel-powered shit-kicking boots. Serves him right.

Hilary Mantel - Bring Up The Bodies

What's It About?
Hilary Mantel received the Booker Prize three years ago for looking like a cross between Deborah Meaden and Vivienne Westwood. And also for doing Wolf Hall, which is a novel about what it feels like to be a Tudor, what a Tudor thinks, how Tudoring got so big, why Tudors loved "Greensleeves" so much, etc. This one's also about Tudors, and also about Thomas Cromwell – Henry VIII's fixer – who is chiefly famous for not being the other guy called Cromwell.

What's It Like?
Wordy. I mean, proper bodice-ripper, prithee-fain-squire florid. Yet, even though it goes on for over 300 pages, there isn't a single passage where someone holds a chicken drumstick parallel to their mouth and takes a lusty bite out of it. In fact, chicken drumsticks barely get a mention. Despite this ropey grasp of historical data, Mantel has won the Booker a never-seen-before second time for a consecutive book. It seems obvious that, by making two very similar books with very similar dust jackets, both about the same people, she aimed to fool The Booker Prize Committee into thinking it was 2009 again. And it worked. Well done her.

How Has It Done?
Well, it has "single-handedly reinvigorated the historical novel", if you listen to the sort of people who write breathless blurbs on the backs of books.

Will Self - Umbrella

What's It About?
Fuck knows. Apparently, one day Will Self thought: 'I guess what's lacking in my books thus far is enough long words, elliptical plotting and high-brow references.' So he has plugged this previously unimagined gap by writing a modernist breezeblock about a psychoanalyst that jumps between three separate eras in a spray gun wash of fluent Joycean bollocks. 

What's It Like?
Like stepping inside the head of a paranoid-schizophrenic cryptic-crossword compiler.

How Has It Done?
Responding to his ridiculously craven attempts to get on the list for a major prize, judging panels have put him on the list for a major prize. Accordingly, it has sold in decent numbers to the 300 people in Britain who can understand it. 

Richard Ford - Canada

What's It About?
Having bank robbers for parents and how cool that is. Canada and how depressing it is. Why murder's a bad thing if you really think about it.

How Has It Done?
Critics always love it when you start things at about 1960, then follow the birth of the modern world through Kennedy, Sputnik, Watergate, etc, and throw in sentences that make sweeping statements about Planet USA. You know, stuff about: "the nervous American intensity for something else”. And especially when you make the main character's sister a hippie who gets sucked into the dark side of flower power. Obviously that's lost a bit of cachet since Forrest Gump, but they've still been making extravagant ticks next to Ford's name on their praise lists. 

Why Does Richard Ford Have Such a Boring Name?

EL James - 50 Shades Of Grey

What Is It?
The greatest contraceptive known to man. The dick-wiltingly terrible sex life of a woman who suffers from Inexplicable Late-Life Virginity Syndrome, and a man who is the sort of solid gold cunt who would consider tickets to the GQ Awards to be a good night out. Designed to teach girls that if they just submit themselves to a bit of arse-sex and a light electric current, they too can be lovelessly tolerated by an enormous prick.

How Has It Done?
Naturally chicks dig that, so it's sold 3.7 billion copies – one for every woman on the planet. No man has ever read it, and if any of them did, he'd be a self-imposed eunuch by nightfall. It is the best-selling book in history, certainly since they released The Bible With A 50 Quid Note Inside It, anyway.

Effect On Society
When we say it has changed the shape of publishing, we mean that in the same way that the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs changed the shape of Earth. That click-clacking noise you keep hearing in your mother's study is probably her trying to churn out a copycat mum-porn best-seller about a rapist who wears silver cufflinks. On the other hand, of course, it has also ruined life for porn-dungeon-keeping millionaire sadists, who now have to face endless tedious questions from intended sex-victims about "whether it's actually like it is in the books" in real life.

Sorry, I mean IRL. You're reading this on a Kindle, aren't you? AREN'T YOU?

Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes

More stuff about books and reading:

All the Books I Read in 2012

Books People Wrote Because They Pissed About Writing

I Talked Books to Bros on Chatroulette

50 Shades of Grey
JK Rowling
Vice Blog
Martin Amis
Will Self
EL James
Hilary Mantel
Booker Prize
Richard Ford
Bringing Up the Bodies
Lionel Asbo State of England